Residencies have become a staple of artistic creation and happen just about everywhere — from city centres to distant countryside. Surveying the field, Gert Nulens finds opportunity on the periphery.
Kate Boschetti and Liam Wilson’s workin-progress performance on Inis Oírr was a clear example of how an artwork can be inspired by its place of creation. Stones from the island became circus objects that transformed into walls — walls between the two jugglers, between the artists and their audience, and between audience and landscape. Beyond these stone borders, the open air and wild ocean.
The performance of Kate and Liam, the visit to the Áras Éanna Arts Centre, and the walk on this remote Irish island, all raised a host of questions about place and identity. How does this rural and remote context shape an artistic creation? Can a place be more than a kind of background or scenery? Does a rural environment differ from urban creation processes, and in what sense? What makes a place rural or urban? What about in-between places, or nonplaces? Lots of these questions are real brain-teasers and this article is not pretending to have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.
Let us take a journey then from remote islands to city centres, from the rural to the urban, from cultural participation to cultural exclusion, from city outskirts to rural spaces.
The rural, the urban, and the periphery
The opposing archetypes of rural and urban have been used in a range of sectors to justify one-dimensional divisions in society. Going back to sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’ famous distinction between Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft in the late 19th century, these archetypes still have an enormous impact on planning and policy in the fields of economics, mobility, education, the arts, and environmental management.
A recent example of the contrast between these opposites is the renewed effort, following arguments concerning pollution and climate change, to centralise people in dense city centres and convince rural inhabitants to give up their romantic dream of a detached house with large garden and double garage. In Flanders, the government recently went so far as to introduce the ‘mobiscore’, a means to measure a property’s impact on the environment by its location. Not surprisingly, accommodation in cities has a much better mobiscore than houses in rural areas. The introduction of the mobiscore was the starting point of a controversial discussion between both sides of the urban-rural separation. This ongoing discussion often implies an unspoken hierarchy between the dominant city discourse and the subordinated rural areas.
The terms rural and urban can be useful, but in a European context it no longer makes much sense to retain this kind of oppositional thinking. It is much more interesting and relevant to focus on the interwovenness of the two opposites. Rural and urban have become dynamic scales instead of static antonyms. Cities can have a very urbanised economy and yet their communities may have rural characteristics (giving us the idea of a city as a ‘collection of villages’). In some urban districts population density is declining or becoming more homogeneous (in terms of background, education, etc.) — a typically ‘rural’ characteristic. In some villages, meanwhile, one can see a spectacular concentration of artistic activity or technological development. Indeed, it seems more relevant to interpret reality in terms of urban rurality or rural urbanity.
For the arts, cities have always been places that attract activity. Cities combine the availability of professional education, artistic community, cultural infrastructure, financial opportunities, and a large potential audience. What’s more, cities are melting pots of cultures, organisations and activities. Cities can create both monstrous realities and unthinkable dreams. Challenges and opportunities go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, cities have always been magnets for creative people. On the other hand, one can notice a kind of conformist reality in urban artistic processes.
Communities reproduce dominant artistic practices, and the same group of cultural participants is being addressed time after time. In search of artistic innovation we often must look to the periphery — whether that be the edge of a city; in-between spaces like shopping malls or highways (what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls ‘non-places’); or the edges of culture, gender and behaviour.
Innovation from the margins
In the theatre and dance fields, creation tends to be centred in big cities. In circus and street arts, however, one can see the picture is more mixed, with creation centres like La Cascade in Bourg-Saint-Andéol (a French village with a population of around 7500), Latitude 50 in Belgium’s remote village of Marchin (fewer than 5000 inhabitants), or Dommelhof in Pelt (a non-urban community in Flanders with 33,000 inhabitants).
There are many reasons for this distribution, including the lower level of infrastructure and professionalisation in the field, but we can also see that street arts and circus are fundamentally looking for venues outside of national theatres, opera houses and other cultural temples. Their stage is outside such walls, and indeed there’s a certain school of street arts driven by the desire to reach new audiences and increase cultural participation — to ‘bring culture to the people’. Following this mission, many residency spaces in areas with little access to culture have created special audience and outreach programmes.
For the artists themselves, one of the benefits of creating on the periphery is the availability and affordability of creation space, but residencies in peripheral spaces can also provide mental space. Artists are pulled away from the urban rat race. Indeed, the arts field can be very competitive, if not brutal. In the periphery there is physical and mental space to focus and interiorise. This can be very helpful at a certain stage of a creation process. One can imagine that in the stage of brainstorming and inspiration, nothing beats the lively environment of a city. However, in the stage of transforming ideas into images and movements, in the stage of composition and dramaturgy, remote residencies can be very useful as artistic boltholes. Artists often praise the efficient progress they made in this kind of remote residency. Everything is focused on the artistic work. No time for diversion.
Because of their remoteness these residencies can also be ‘safe spaces’. Artists are welcomed in a warm and forgiving environment. Space for failure is created. A critical eye is always there, but residents are shielded from the instantaneous, direct critique typical in a crowded and competitive urban arts network. Sometimes these residency spaces, as in the case of Kate and Liam on Inis Oírr, also act as a source of inspiration. Creations can be made for a specific location, as has been the case for the latest editions of the Belgian circus festival Theater op de Markt in Dommelhof. With each edition a new artistic director is invited to create a circus show in the woods surrounding Dommelhof with students from the Dutch circus school ACaPA. A couple of weeks before the festival, the director and the students plan and create a show on the spot, making use of the trees, hills and character of the landscape. This interwovenness between space, artists — and, come the performance, audiences — has proven to be magic.
OUT OF LAND - The Docu-Art Film, Kate & Liam Cie, 2020.
So residencies in peripheric locations can be inspirational and safe contexts that provide physical and mental space. But creation in these locations should not be romanticised. Indeed, these spaces also come with challenges. Paradoxes in remote residency spaces include isolation versus engagement, financial needs versus artistic commitment, and production versus presentation.
A balance of interests
Every artistic creation is inherently a fragile process which cannot, at a certain phase, endure external pressures. Indeed, a creation process not only demands inspiration and ideas, it also requires a form of isolation and loneliness. Separated from the usual urban artistic network, creation in remote spaces can be very lonely. For some artists this isolation comes with a certain weight and pressure: the loneliness can be overwhelming. For others it has proven to be just the right context for their artistic work to flourish. This isolation can become problematic for the residency space itself on the level of strategy and communications: while isolation can work very well for the individual creation process of an artist, it can also lead to a lack of local support and engagement. If artists work in complete isolation, remote residency spaces risk becoming like isolated greenhouses for artistic products presented elsewhere. Artistic creation, in both urban and rural contexts, can be very antisocial.
And yet these peripheral areas can really benefit from audience interaction. Not only because of lower cultural participation levels, but also because local support is needed to maintain these spaces and to legitimise their public funding. The challenge, then, is for residency spaces in these locations to develop audience engagement programmes which gently introduce audiences within the fragile creation processes of artists. In the worst scenario this paradox of isolation versus engagement can degenerate into work disconnected from the world. In the best scenario it results in locally supported artistic innovation.
The second paradox pits the need for financial resources against artistic commitment. We live in a reality in which circus and street arts companies are forced to find a lot of co-producers to finance a new production — and residencies come along with this, as every co-producer wants to bind a new creation to their organisation. In this system is there a risk that a residency in a remote space is taken not for its resonance with an artistic process but purely as a financial and pragmatic choice?
This is a relevant question, but points towards a necessary trade-off. The advantage of the current system of multiple residencies is that it creates a very broad network for new creations. The combined backing of all these spaces guarantees that the work will be supported, promoted and presented. It more or less prevents the creation of artistic work in which no one is interested. Another advantage is that residency spaces like to build up long-term relations with certain artists. It is much more interesting to start on an artistic path that will last several years than it is to support a lot of short-term projects.
In the worst scenario, the tension between financial needs and artistic commitment results in a random selection of artists seeking resources. In the best scenario it leads to longterm relationships with carefully selected artists whose work is profoundly supported. The final paradox then is between production and presentation. A lot of the more important residency spaces in street arts and circus have a role in both creation and presentation. In other industries this merging of production and presentation (or consumption) is actually rather rare. Rural areas especially act as producers of goods which are consumed by inhabitants of urban areas. Think of the production of water, food, nature, recreation activities, and so on. Rural areas are often product and service deliverers for urban areas.
In the arts field, parallels can be drawn to this classic pattern. The main stages for the consumption of art are situated in cities. Artists might paint or make sculptures in remote areas, but their work will be sold in urban galleries. In the field of circus and street arts, however, spaces follow a dual function, helping emerging talents to make their first creations while also being nodes in an international network of presentation. This mechanism brings a certain centralisation of power — with a handful of large actors deciding what is worth producing and what is worth presenting — but serves to continually introduce new artists into the field.
Paradoxes such as these are useful models for thinking about the decision-making that underlies creative processes, but, as with our urban-rural distinction, we needn’t make a choice for one side or the other. We might talk forever about whether a creation is taking place in an urban context or a rural one, or about the relative merits of focused introversion versus extroverted engagement, but it is in the constant swinging between such positions, and in the acceptance of their conflicts, that creativity can flourish.
A hive for creation
by Alice Gilloire
Stradda, HorsLesMurs, April 2012
Fresh street #3
This publication was coordinated by Circostrada
and edited by John Ellingsworth